Over the past few months, I have been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my children - a show that I grew up enjoying and watching many times over. Prince Zuko, one of the antagonists in the first 2 books (seasons), is hellbent to regain his honor after being banished by his father and enemy of the world, the Firelord. Zuko pursues the Avatar hero, named Aang, across the world in hopes that the Firelord will love and accept him after he captures the Avatar. Throughout his journey, Zuko is filled with torment as he battles his sins and inner demons. He questions whether life as a rage-filled enemy prince is what he truly wants. All along his journey, Zuko's uncle, beloved Uncle Iroh, is always there when he needs him. Iroh loves Zuko deeply. Despite his nephew's flaws and misguided worldview, he persists to teach him goodness, wisdom, and peace through life lessons and harsh reproach.
As events unfold, Zuko gives in to his rage, betrays Uncle Iroh, and returns to his father, the Firelord, seemingly securing his place to the throne and his place as an enemy of the world. Being accepted out of exile by his father, Zuko's conscience is plagued by his betrayal of his uncle. Seeking a clean conscience, he visits Uncle Iroh in prison only to blurt out a self-righteous rant, justifying his actions that put his uncle there. This would seem like their final encounter.
Overcome with a guilty conscience, Zuko realizes his wrong path and tells the Firelord that he will be leaving to join the Avatar in the fight for good and peace. After a kind of rebirth, this new Zuko is calm and kind, and he sought out his uncle. In the best scene of the entire series, Zuko weeps and apologies to Uncle Iroh for his betrayal. Then, when Zuko feels unforgivable, before he could even finish his amends, Iroh grabs Zuko's shirt and embraces him in a great act of forgiveness.
For a children's show, it is a profoundly deep and touching moment, and for a show filled with Buddhist overtones, this scene is quite Christian and should be familiar to us sinner-saints. As a plain layman, I do not have to be a pastor or theologian to recognize that the unconditional forgiveness of Iroh is precisely the kind Christ gifts you and me. Before we can even get the words out of our mouths, the Father embraces us and rejoices that His children have been found. I have yet to find this kind of shirt-pulling embrace and forgiveness offered by the world. The contract of the world states that amends must be made and penance paid, but on the contrary, Christ's death on the cross intercedes as satisfactory and complete penance.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
Years ago, my marriage endured a two-year separation that was triggered by my sins and prolonged by my wife's. Having hurt my wife and having been hurt by her, I must say that we have not had many moments like the redemptive one between Zuko and Uncle Iroh. When I am the sinful party in the relationship, I want nothing more than my sadness and guilty conscience to be met with shirt-pulling embraces and forgiveness, even before I complete my apology. And likewise, my wife wants the same for herself. Many people with a guilty conscience crave this conscience-cleansing absolution - don't you?
“Be of good cheer, my son. Your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2)
Unfortunately, my wife and I did not extend unconditional forgiveness to one another for quite a long time. As you could guess, healing was slow. It wasn't until hearing succinct words of Gospel and absolution on a Sunday that we felt freed to extend forgiveness to one another. This is why we love the people at 1517 who have regularly delivered the Gospel to us. This is why I need to literally hear absolution spoken to me on Sunday.
To confess, the reason there are so few Zuko & Iroh moments in my marriage is that I am stubborn and prideful. Either I am the one not deeply confessing my wrongdoings or I am the one withholding forgiveness by justifying my distrust.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12)
When we are the offended party in a relationship, the sacrifice and love required to drop all our hurts and distrust in order to forgive our neighbors is quite small when compared to the sacrificial death Christ paid on our behalf. Christ urges us to love our neighbor as He loved us, forgiving all of their sins - giving them the absolving, shirt-pulling, embrace that we would also want. In my life, I have sinned by not loving my wife in moments of her confessions and apologies - my pride and self-righteousness are the root of my unforgiveness. Ironically, I need forgiveness and absolution for not forgiving and absolving others. In this way, marriage is a never-ending cycle of confession and absolution to one another.
“Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you.” (Acts 3:19)
Perhaps, you have been like me and also withheld forgiveness from those who have hurt you. Remember that Christ died for you and that His death was for your neighbor as well. Sacrifice your distrust, hurt, and desire for amends and absolve and forgive them on account for the freedom you have in Christ - the freedom to forgive as He has forgiven us.
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:12-13)